“Records” by Henry William Herbert; and, on the Life of His Wife, Sarah Herbert (Barker)

by Ann Neilson

 

 

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Sarah Barker, wife of Henry William Herbert, from Poems of “Frank Forester” (Henry William Herbert)

The following is a raw and lovingly woven dedicatory piece written by nineteenth-century author and sportsman Henry William Herbert, in memory of his wife Sarah Barker. The tribute mourns the anniversary of her death, and is a moving commemoration of both Barker’s life and Herbert’s grief. Barker, from Bangor, Maine, was the daughter of the town’s mayor and ship captain, George Barker. Herbert, who had gone to Maine on a hunting trip with Barker’s former fiance, Joseph A. Scoville, attended to the home of Barker, where both Herbert and Barker fell in love. Barker called off her engagement with Scoville and she and Herbert married in 1839 (White, Henry William Herbert and the American Publishing Scene, 1831-1858). Herbert’s poem paints a portrait of a devoted wife and mother, one who eagerly anticipated the return of her husband after his long excursions; one who devoutly loved him, despite his turbulent nature; one who most likely filled Herbert’s household with warmth and light. The dream of a lifelong marriage spent alongside Sarah did not last, however, following her death on March 11, 1844. According to White, “After giving birth to a daughter in July 1843, Sarah Herbert developed tuberculosis. In desperation, her husband carried her from one health resort to another, but she grew steadily worse. She was twenty-two years old when she died in Philadelphia…” (40). The aforementioned daughter, Louisa, died shortly after Sarah, on August 19 of the same year. The couple also had a son, William George, who, after the death of his mother, was sent off to England to live with Herbert’s extended family.

Although Herbert later found love in an Adela Budlong (a fleeting actress who may or may not have been swayed to marry Herbert because of his ties to royalty), their marriage crumbled due to its superficiality and Budlong’s unhappiness (as well as possibly Herbert’s uncontrollable temper). Despite the years of toil and grief that Henry endured after Sarah’s death—the financial hardship and the pains of his irreconcilable second marriage to Budlong—it seems the immortal image of Sarah never left his side, for, according to David Judd in the Life and Writings of Frank Forester (Henry William Herbert), “He suspended his dead wife’s portrait, an excellent oil painting, a veritable masterpiece by his friend Inman, in the most prominent position in his study, that his stray glances might constantly rest upon her features,” and, on the night of his death by suicide, “finally carried it with him to the chamber he destined to be that of his own death, that her countenance might catch his closing eyes as the dearest object upon the face of the earth” (85). This portrait by Inman is the one featured at the beginning of this post. For a vague comparison of her “live” presence with that of this painting, you can see her post-mortem photo here.

I feel I cannot properly attribute any further words to the loving union of Herbert and Barker; therefore, please allow Herbert’s own words in “Records” speak as testament to their love.

RECORDS.
Henry William Herbert
From Poems of “Frank Forester” (Henry William Herbert)
THIS was a happy day a year ago,
As now most wretched. This day I returned
From absence of one little month—one month
That seemed a year:—returned to feel her heart
Beat against mine, that ne’er shall beat with joy,
Or leap in ecstasy to those blue eyes
So bright and beautiful, or throb again
To mine responsive,
Oh! I see her now,
As she upstarted from her chair in haste
To greet me, with the eloquent warm blood
Flushing her fair white brow, the lips apart,
And radiant with that sunny smile that spoke
The joyous mirthfulness of her pure soul—
Most innocent and artless, and the eyes
That flashed affection out in dazzling beams
Electrical. I hear her soft, low voice
Say, “Dearest, dearest, have you come at last?
Long have I waited for you, and last night
Watched till nigh morning. Had you not come home
To-day, I should have sickened with the ‘hope Deferred.'”
But it is I that now am sick,
Past thought to be relieved; sick not with hope,—
For that disease hath still some saving touch
Of consolation in’t, that nerves the soul
To bear its tortures,—but for very lack
Of anything to hope on earth again.
For she is gone—aye, gone! and that rare form,
Which I see now as palpably as though
It stood there, glowing in the perfect grace
And glory of young womanhood;—a dream,
A trick of memory, lighter than a shade,
And by no sense of mind to be enjoyed
Or apprehended.
Yes, I see her now
As she upstarted, in her purple robe,
Graced by the fair proportions of her shape,
Not gracing them—her bosom of pure snow,
Translucent, with its thousand azure veins
Matchlessly beautiful; her glorious hair
Clustered in many ringlets of rich brown
Lit with a sunny lustre, down her neck
Falling profuse.
I feel her clasping arms
Wound close about my neck; her soft, thick curls
Fanning my cheek; and her sweet, lovely face,
Burning with blushes, hidden on my breast.
I hear her fond voice faltering in my ear
Glad tidings—that our little one—our boy,
Whom I left mute as yet, had found his tongue,
And learned to lisp her name.
It is but one year
Of the threescore and ten which sum the toil,
The lengthened weariness, and transient joy,
Of man’s allotted time, and all is changed—
Withered and cold forever, as my heart;
Which is alone, and desolate, and void,
And hopeless. She was all I had on earth;
The one rare treasure that enriched a life
Quite barren else; the only being that loved
And cherished, aye! and honored me, whose course
Has ever lain among the storms of the world,
The blight of evil tongues, and rancorous spite
Of who, not knowing, load with ill report
That which they comprehend not. She was all—
All that I had or wished. Love, happiness,
Ambition, hope—all, all in her
Were centred; and with her they are all gone,
Ne’er to come back to me.
I have nor home,
Nor country, nor companions; and the grave
Will be a resting-place, a distant end,
Not shunned, but longed for, as the pleasant bourn
Of suffering, and perchance the gate of joy;
Beyond the perishable, where immortal souls
May meet and love each other with a love
Transcending aught mortality has felt
Of best affections.
Oh that it were so!
Oh that I could believe, and in that trust
Be confident and strong, that even now
She looks upon me, and, in perfect bliss,
With something of affection still regards
The lost companion of her mortal joys,
The last attendant of her painful bed—
Him on whose breast her head was propped, on whom
Her glazing eyes were fixed, that yearned to see
When sight had left them; him whose hand yet thrills
At recollection of the entwined caress
Of those poor fingers, in their dying spasm,
Affectionate to the latest; him whose name—
Never, ’tis like, again to greet his ear
From any lips on earth—her lips strove hard
To syllable, but could not!
Life itself
Were not all weary, could I deem that she,
Marking my ways, might see each step more near
To heaven and her; and feel her very bliss
Something augmented by the unchanging love
Of him she loved so fondly; that one day
She might come forth to meet me, as of old,
But robed in beauty that will never fade,
And, radiant with eternal joy, again
Say, “Dearest, dearest, you have come at last;
Long have I waited you; and see your love
Constant and faithful, and fidelity
Hath its reward; and we are met again,
Never to sorrow more, or sin, or die:”
Oh! might I trust in this, I could go on,
In confident humility secure,
And fearless of the future.
But who knows,
Except the Father, and the Son who dwells
Forever in his glory? Who may dare
E’en to dream of that, which He hath left
Obscure, nor by a word of his illumed
The utter darkness that enshrouds the dead?
But thou art merciful, and knowest, Lord,
The weakness of the mortal: banish thou
The cruel thoughts which terrify my soul,
Whispering that she, whose early grave hath closed
Over the sweetest of thy daughters, lies
Forgetful of the life that lived for her,
Or, in her happiness, sees not the woe
That steeps in utter gloom the heart whose light
She was, and is no longer; the dark doubt,
Never to be enlightened till that day
When all shall be revealed—the dread, dark doubt
That we shall meet no more, when but to meet
Would make earth heave—as her sweet smile of old
And soothing voice could win a charm from pain,
Make poverty seem wealth, and sorrow bliss!
Gentlest and mirthfullest of living things,
And sweetest in thy purity of youth,
Thine artless innocence, thy charity
That thought no harm, thy love that knew not self—
To minister with the angels thou art gone,
And never shalt come back to me again,
As the light cometh with the morn, the leaves
With the glad spring-time.
Grant it, God, that I
May go to thee, and know thee, and be known,
There, where the wicked from their troubling cease,
The weary are at rest.
I ask but this:
Could I but think it, I could go my way
Rejoicing, and look forward to my goal
Happy, nor faint nor falter on the road.